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Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1928–2000

By Wieland Schmied

Taschen, 2014

ISBN: 9783836551281

Friedensreich Hundertwasser 1928–2000

A tour of Vienna would be incomplete without a visit to the so-called Hundertwasserhaus at the corner of Lowengasse and Kegelgasse – it is not everyone’s cup of tea, some prefer to gaze at Otto Wagner’s Majolikahaus by the Naschmarkt, but apparently Prince Charles is a fan.

In this book Schmied looks in detail at Hundertwasser’s artistic career, devoting along the way quite a lot of space (5 of its 77 sections) to a consideration of the famous house, its genesis and construction and the opinions of critics and tenants – the people who actually live there.

Hundertwasser was a painter before he became an architect, and he was a graphic designer too.  He designed postage stamps, licence plates and flags as well as illustrating the Bible.  And very early on, long before it became fashionable, he campaigned for ecological issues.

Schmied notes the influences of Klimt, Schiele and the lesser known Walter Kampmann on the paintings (and the influence of Chagall is discernible in what Schmied calls the ‘naïve’ paintings); the significance of the friendship with Arnulf Rainer; the antipathy toward Loos’ architectural credo and the clear sympathy with the ideas of Ruskin, William Morris and (closer to home) the Wiener Werkstatte.  He does all this and more, and yet- and yet the issue of Hundertwasser’s Jewishness and Austria’s complicity in Nazism and its possible effect on his work is rather muted.

About 70 of his relatives (‘his mother’s relatives’ in the book) were deported from Austria and murdered by the Nazis and we are told that ‘it seems a miracle that he and his mother survived the Nazi persecution of the Jews’.  Just that: the artist apparently never spoke openly about this period of his life.  There’s the odd reference to numerology and the Kabbalah and the intriguing statement that ‘colour was to him what vowels are to Hebrew’.  But little else within the book.  It is also interesting that, while insisting (so we are told) on his Austrian identity, Hundertwasser ‘spent more time away from Vienna than in his native city’.  Clearly, something is not being said here.

Hundertwasser did remark that his architecture was inspired above all by the illustrations of dwellings he found in the fairy-tales he read as a child.  They were places where he felt he could hide.  He would have been just 9 or 10 at the time of the Anchluss in 1938, a contemporary of the children whose portraits appeared in Manfred Bockelmann’s exhibition Drawing Against Oblivion, which appeared last year at the Leopold Museum.  His key architectural credo of ‘unregulated irregularities’ is here read as a refusal to control nature, to allow plants and vegetation the freedom to grow alongside human habitation.  That’s what it means in practice, of course; one notes merely that as a concept it’s the very opposite of the Nazi notion of Lebensunwertes Leben.  I also find it quite difficult to believe that Hundertwasser could see the swastika as simply a Hindu religious symbol, but Schmied passes over this use without comment.

If you have any kind of interest in Hundertwasser’s art and architecture, this book is a pretty good place to start.  It will give you a solid understanding of the background to his work, not least the less well known paintings, which appear here in abundance.  But, as intimated, it’s by no means the last word on the artist.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.